Opinion

Canada's government is clearly uninterested in finding innovative solutions to gun violence

As long as we continue to view gun ownership as a suspicious and criminal act, an approach that centres on law enforcement will always seem the most responsible.

Law enforcement is just one aspect of tackling the harm caused by guns

Through Bill C-71, it is clear that the government has again decided to rest on its law enforcement-heavy laurels. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The federal government has finally accepted what cities have been complaining about for years: we're not doing enough to tackle gun violence.

Last month, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale convened a summit on gun and gang violence — bringing together law enforcement, medical professionals, gun control and gun rights activists, Indigenous communities and community activists — all in hopes of finding innovative ways to reduce gun violence.

But when the government introduced Bill C-71, which amends the Firearms Act to enhance background checks, record-keeping and changes the ways the RCMP can classify firearms, it became abundantly clear that the government has again decided to rest on its law enforcement-heavy laurels. It's doing the same thing as always, and hoping for better results.

Broadening the scope

If Canada truly wants to decrease gun violence, we must start by considering all types of gun violence — including suicides, accidents and police shootings — and rely on experts outside of law enforcement who have greater influence in potential victims' lives.

The typical government approach to communities with high incidences of shootings and gun homicides has been to increase police presence through specialized task forces, such as the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS).

However, not only have these efforts been rather ineffective at curtailing gun violence —Toronto had 594 shooting victims in 2017, more than double the number of victims in 2014—  they've also led to significant resentment and distrust in the police because of heightened police surveillance. Indeed, TAVIS was disbanded after critics insisted it too heavily relied on carding African Canadians.

Although gun homicides tend to cause the most panic publicly, approximately three-quarters of gun-related deaths in Canada are suicides. (CBC)

Chicago-based Cure Violence is one example of a smarter approach. The program employs ex-offenders instead of police officers to intervene and de-escalate potentially fatal conflicts in communities. Cities where this program has been implemented have seen a reduction of up to 70 per cent in shootings, violent confrontations and homicides.

Although gun homicides tend to cause the most panic publicly, approximately three-quarters of gun-related deaths in Canada are suicides, and people are three times more likely to complete suicide when they have access to a gun. This is why it's essential for doctors to take proactive measures to determine whether their patients (especially teenagers) with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation have access to a gun, even if it's not their own gun. And to work with families to find ways to restrict that access.

Almost every day in Ontario, a child or young person is injured by a gun, usually accidentally. To confront this, provincial governments should update school curricula to incorporate gun safety in classroom instruction, similar to teaching about illegal drug use. Although there are few accidental shooting deaths each year, severe injury such as loss of sight and loss of limbs in children do still occur, meriting some sort of coordinated response.

Then there's gun violence by way of police shootings. Since 2000, there have been on average 27 police shooting deaths each year in Canada. The vast majority — over 70 per cent — of victims suffered from mental health and substance abuse problems.

Idil Abdillahi, professor of social work at Ryerson University, has been championing an alternative method that would lessen the number of interactions between people in mental distress and police, and thus create fewer opportunities for fatal encounters.

Under this model, unarmed social workers — trained in methods of de-escalation and interaction with people in emotional distress — would be the first responders to calls with people in crisis, with police officers only serving as backup when needed. Many victims services agencies across Ontario offer similar crisis response intervention programs, which dispatch counsellors in the immediate aftermath of crimes.

The government's new bill, however, steers clear of these sorts of innovative solutions. Instead, it gives police officers access to firearms sales records, and it also brings in stronger regulations involving restricted firearms, such as requiring owners get a permit before taking their gun to a gunsmith for repair. These regulations have, predictably, drawn the ire of gun owners' associations.

Lack of consultation

Despite the government's interest in public consultations, there seems to have been few consultations done on this file. There was the summit as mentioned above, and Minister Goodale does have a firearms advisory committee, but that committee is mandated only to meet a minimum of once a year and deliberate in secret

What's more, it's unlikely that any of the information "shared" at last month's summit went into Bill C-71, given the bill was introduced two weeks later. When it comes to tackling gun violence, the government is clearly uninterested in finding bold and innovative solutions.

As long as we continue to view gun ownership as a suspicious and criminal act, an approach that centres on law enforcement will always seem the most responsible. Governments should instead rely on other people in communities — doctors, social workers, educators and ex-offenders — who are closer to and may have greater trust from potential victims. Canada doesn't need a guns-first approach. Canada needs a victims-first approach.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Angela Wright

Angela Wright is a writer and public affairs professional. She holds a Master’s in history from the University of Iowa. Follow her on Twitter:

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